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NYTimes Friedman: Who's Afraid of a Gas Tax?
Mar 1, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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The New York Times
March 1, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Who's Afraid of a Gas Tax?

My gut told me this was the case, but it's great to see it confirmed by the latest New York Times/CBS News poll: Americans not only know that our oil addiction is really bad for us, but they would be willing to accept a gasoline tax if some leader would just frame the stakes for the country the right way.

I am sure one reason President Bush suddenly chose to build his State of the Union address around ending our oil addiction and moving toward a renewable-energy future was because his private polling told him the same thing. But Mr. Bush simply occupied this ground rhetorically - before Democrats could get there - without actually offering a real solution.

The only real solution is raising our gasoline tax, which is a paltry 18.4 cents a gallon and has not been increased since 1993. Only if the total price of gasoline is brought into the $3.50-to-$4-per-gallon range - and kept there - will large numbers of Americans demand plug-in hybrid cars that run on biofuels like ethanol. When large numbers of Americans do that, U.S. automakers will move quickly down the innovation curve.

"Impossible," campaign consultants say. "A gasoline tax is political suicide." No, it all depends on how you frame it.

The poll reported yesterday found that 60 percent of those polled, including one-third of Republicans, disapproved of how Mr. Bush is handling our energy crisis. Only 27 percent approved. Most want real action - now. In the poll, 87 percent said Washington should require car manufacturers to produce more efficient cars.

Of course, when asked simply whether they'd favor a gasoline tax, 85 percent said no and only 12 percent said yes. But when the gas tax was framed as part of a national strategy to achieve energy security and climate security, pollsters got a very different answer. When the tax was presented as reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, 55 percent favored it and 37 percent said no. And when asked about a gas tax that would help reduce global warming, even more respondents supported it - with 59 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed.

And that is without a single Democrat or Republican leading on this issue! Imagine if someone actually led?

Many Americans now understand: the Energy Question is the big strategic issue of our time, overtaking 9/11 and the war on terrorism. If a leader from either party would correctly frame the issue - that a gas tax is the single most important geostrategic move we could make today - a solid majority would support it.

Taking on this issue is the only hope the Bush team has for producing a legacy out of its remaining years. And it is the Democrats' only hope for taking on the Republicans with a big idea - rather than relying on G.O.P. scandals to win.

Sadly, both sides fear the other will smear them if they run on this issue. O.K., say you're running for Congress and you propose a gas tax, but your opponent denounces you as a wimpy, tree-hugging girlie-man, a tax-and-spender. What do you say back?

I'd say: "Oh, really? I guess you think it is smart, tough and patriotic for us to be financing both sides in the war on terrorism - the U.S. military with our tax dollars, and Al Qaeda, Iran and various hostile Islamist charities with our energy purchases.

"Now how patriotic is that? I guess you haven't noticed that today's global economic playing field has been leveled and that three billion new players from India, China and Russia have walked onto the field, buying new cars, homes and refrigerators. So if we don't break our addiction to crude oil, we're going to heat up this planet so much faster - enough to melt the North Pole and make Katrina look like a summer breeze.

"Now how smart is that? I guess you don't realize that because of this climate change and the rising cost of crude, green technologies are going to be the industry of the 21st century, and a gasoline tax is the surest way to make certain that our industries innovate faster and dominate innovation in green cars, homes and appliances.

"Finally, I guess you haven't noticed that the wave of democratization that seemed unstoppable after the fall of the Berlin Wall has run into a black counterwave of petro-authoritarianism. This black wave of oil-financed autocrats - Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Nigeria, Burma, Saudi Arabia - has all the money in the world now to turn back the democratic tide. And you think doing nothing to reverse that is patriotic? Shame on you, you unpatriotic wimp. Green is the new red, white and blue, pal. What color are you?"

That's what I'd say.

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